QUESTION: What exactly is the teaching/doctrine of no-birth? I can only come at that through the idea that there is no-thing to be born ... only causes and conditions out of which a transient reality emerges. And that reality is ultimately all of the causes and conditions: it is where the entire universe comes to focus, and not a "thing" which is born. Is that reasonably close to the teaching of no-birth, or am I far off? Namo Amida Bu
SHORT ANSWER: Dharma has no beginning.
LONG ANSWER: Well, all that about no things existing, only conditions, is probably well and fine, if a bit too abstruse for most folk. Everything is impermanent except something. That something is, in Buddhism, called nirvana. It was never born and it will never die. You could call it the Tao or the origin of God or whatever. It is that in which all mystics take refuge. When we hang on to impermanent things we are inevitably compromised and our soul is corrupted. But if we do not do so, in what shall we take refuge? In Udana 80, Buddha says, if there were no Unborn, no Unconditioned, no Deathless, there could be no liberation. There is no conceptual way of defining this. One can only hint. However, this is what all mystics of all religions turn to and rely upon.
I think that there has been a tendency to overlook the mystical truth of Buddhism and reframe it as a theory of quasi-physics or ontology. Buddhism is not really about the nature of being, it is about salvation. If I put my trust in the Unborn, then my life transcends the limitations of physical being and my manner of being in the world is in accord with the Buddha Way because it is not compromised. This teaching is the teaching of a higher loyalty.
Ideas about causes and conditions and all that are not meant to make one accept that there is nothing for it but to just be a product if conditions. They are meant to show us what a perilous position we are in. Causes and conditions are the flames of the burning house. Do not waste time.